Thursday, May 31, 2007
Who is my favourite scientists and why?
Alfred Nobel, 1833–1896
Grade 7, Laerskool Skuilkrans, Pretoria
[Note: the original typed essay was illustrated.]
No longer known as “King of Dynamite”…
On 21 October 1833 Alfred Bernhard Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden. He became
interested in science, especially chemistry, at a very young age. When he was eight, his
family moved to St Petersburg in Russia. His father was and engineer who had a factory
where powder-charged explosive mines were made. These were used during the Crimean
War. His mother was a descendent of Olof Rudbeck who discovered the lymphatic
system in 1651. Alfred had two older brothers, Robert and Ludvig, and a younger
As Alfred was not a healthy child he could not attend school, college or university — he
did all his studies on his own with the help of private tutors.
As a young man he enjoyed traveling and he became fluent in five languages. He was
interested in literature and in his spare time he wrote novels, plays and poetry. One of his
poems was published.
In 1863 the family returned to Sweden and Alfred worked in his father’s factory in
Heleneborg in Stockholm, He became fascinated with nitroglycerin — a highly volatile
material that he tried to stabilize. In other words, he tried to prevent it from evaporating
quickly. After years of experimenting he discovered that mixing a fine powder named
kieselguhr with nitroglycerin gave the desired effect. He called the explosive material he
had invented “dynamite”. In 1864 a terrible accident happened: five people including
Alfred’s younger brother Emil, then aged 20, were killed during an experiment with
dynamite. The shock was too much for Alfred’s father and he died of a stroke soon
Alfred himself was motivated by this accident to try to develop a less dangerous type of
dynamite. Instead of attempting to light the unstable liquid nitroglycerin directly, he used
a metal or wooden cap filled with ordinary black gunpowder. By using a slow-burning
fuse leading to the cap, the person who lit the fuse was given enough time to run away
before the explosion.
In 1867 Alfred patented dynamite and set up factories around the world. Soon dynamite
was manufactured in Sweden, Germany, Norway and America. The invention quickly
proved its usefulness in building and construction. The Alpine Tunnel that was blasted
using dynamite was a good example of Alfred’s invention. Rivers could be cleared and
channels cut. Underwater rocks in a river in New York could be removed so that it was
safer for ships. Soon Alfred Nobel was famous. But unfortunately not only construction
and mining companies, but also the military, ordered large quantities of explosives. Page 2
Nobel established laboratories in Stockholm, Hamburg, Paris, Bofors and San Remo for
research. The original form of dynamite was gradually replaced by gelatin dynamite,
which was safer to handle.
Alfred Nobel’s research also provided valuable information on the development of
artificial rubber, leather, silk, precious stones and synthetic materials. Eventually he had
355 patents registered! Sales of dynamite and income from his many other businesses all
over the world made him one of the wealthiest men in Europe.
Nobel was a pacifist and thought the discovery of dynamite would lead to peace. He
argued: “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As
soon as men will find that in one instant whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they
surely will abide by golden peace.”
It did not work out the way he thought!
One day Alfred had a terrible shock when he opened his morning newspaper. The
newspaper in his home town received the news that he had died, and published his
obituary. In the obituary he was called the “King of Dynamite” and he was blamed for
the death and mutilation of thousands of people. He was described as the person who had
made horrors of warfare possible.
It was very bad for Alfred to realize how other saw his contribution to mankind. He did
not want to be remembered in such a way. He wanted to be remembered as a many of
science and of peace. “For my part,” he said three years before his death, “I wish all guns
with their belongings and everything could be sent to hell, which is the proper place for
their exhibition and use.”
In 1895 Nobel drew up his will and left most of his estate of $9 million in trust to
establish prizes for individuals whose contributions inspired the world: the well-known
Nobel Prizes. Alfred said: “If only a few out of a hundred such ideas ever bear fruit, I’ll
consider I have gained a rich result.”
A year later he died at the age of 63 of a heart attack in his home in San Remo, Italy, on
10 December 1896.
Today the Nobel prizes are still the most honoured prizes in the world. But the most
sought-after Nobel prize is the Nobel Peace Prize.
Well-known recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize were Mother Theresa and Martin Luther
Alfred Nobel is my favourite scientist, because he is an example of what I think a
scientist should be: responsible and trying to contribute in a positive way to mankind as a
whole and to peace on earth. Especially today, with all sorts of new scientific research
and discoveries being made daily, I am sometimes scared of what the effects can be, for
example biological or nuclear war. The effects of genetic manipulation and cloning can
also be disastrous. Mad people might have thousands of replicas of themselves cloned, or
monsters may be created by genetic manipulation.
It is good that Alfred Nobel’s awards remind and inspire all scientists to contribute to the
benefit of humanity.
South Africa was very proud when former presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk
shared the Nobel Prize for Peace. Other South Africans who recently received Nobel
prizes are J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, who received Nobel prizes for Literature. IPage 3
am glad that the South African government is presently also working towards a gun-free
Alfred Nobel is no longer known as “King of Dynamite” — he is remembered as
“Captain of Peace”!